First, let me just say: if you are a dumbass, a real, in-the-flesh dumbass, I probably don’t like you. I probably don’t think you are funny, and I probably don’t think you are charming; actually, I probably don’t think that much about you at all except maybe to wish that you were not a real, in-the-flesh dumbass. HOWEVER. If you are a dumbass in fiction, a dumbass who does dumbass things but then learns and grows and becomes a real person, well. In that case, it is very possible that I might be a little bit in love with you. Surprise!
Let’s talk about a couple of fictional dumbasses. Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips), of Friday Night Lights fame, is the kind of guy who proposes to his girlfriend at the strip club where she works and thinks burying stolen cars is the same thing as disposing of them. He’s “raising” his teenage brother, perpetual audience favorite/heartbreaker Tim Riggins (also in possession of dumbass tendencies, but endlessly golden-hearted, not to mention pretty-faced), which mostly consists of buying him beer and then yelling at him about it later. Billy occasionally spills over into “genuinely destructive” territory–Tim eventually goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit so that Billy can stay with his wife and newborn son–but mostly he’s just a guy who wants to be a man but doesn’t have the common sense to pull it off.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Mason (Callum Blue), George Lass’s smarmy grim reaper colleague on Bryan Fuller‘s 2003 show Dead Like Me. Mason is fundamentally gross. He’s British, perpetually high, and spends most of his time scamming on girls and staking his squatter’s claim on the apartments of dead people, or both. Par for Mason’s course is his cause of death: self-inflicted head wound via power drill while in search of a permanent high…which does nothing to stop him trying to smuggle drugs fifty years into his afterlife (“I’ve got illegals in my bottom!”). Unlike Billy Riggins, the source of Mason’s dumbassery is that, after fifty years of taking souls and observing human nature, he knows better, sort of—and continues to be repellent in a number of hilariously dumb ways. And yet, Mason is moved by those around him in ways that surprise nobody more than Mason himself: there’s the gay couple who start out as a joke and end up as a (somewhat disturbing) lesson in true love, the old lady from whom he intends to steal art and whose worthless paintings he ends up hanging around her house (…after he moves in as a squatter, of course), and Daisy Adair, his love-starved reaper nemesis/love interest, played infuriatingly and then heartbreakingly by Laura Harris. Between acts of mind-blowing stupidity, he’s prone to acts of random kindness: surrendering his beautiful house to the girls, say, or simply treating Daisy like a loved person for just a second.
And that’s the shocking, wonderful thing about great dumbasses in fiction: even in the midst of their deepest cluelessness, they’re always ripe for just a hint of redemption, and for touching the the lives of others in ways they’re too self-absorbed to have planned. The ideal balance of idiocy and self-transcendence is a delicate one, making dumbasses a risky character type to create; on the other hand, they can be the most satisfying to write and to watch–hence the title of this post. When Billy Riggins becomes a maker of men as an assistant coach for the East Dillon Lions, we know it’s all he’s ever really wanted–not the football job, per se, but success as a leader. When Mason kills Daisy’s violent boyfriend Ray (a surprisingly scary Eric McCormack) in her defense, it’s spur-of-the-moment–but it’s an act of bravery of the kind that Mason generally avoids, and it comes with a brand of guilt that he spends most of his time trying to escape. It’s a coming-of-age moment, sort of, or at least a statement that he cares. And we love him for it, murder or no.
This is the joy of the fictional dumbass: the fictional dumbass is always shadowed by his or her own potential in a way that the non-fictional dumbass is not required to be. It’s a potential for brilliance or a potential for compassion or a potential for just maybe being okay, but it’s the possibility that that character might someday not be a dumbass. Or maybe they will be, forever and ever amen, but by the time that ship has sailed, it’s too late, and we don’t mind all that much.